“The Quietest Pentecostal”: Initial Thoughts on John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church

Giancarlo Esposito (left) and Ron Cephas Jones (right)
Like Doubt, Shanley’s most famous play in his church-state trilogy, Storefront Church is a parable play. The lesson this time: great men resist the progress of capitalism and help those left behind. Protagonist Donaldo Calderon (played by Giancarlo Esposito) faces two connected dilemmas that dramatize this message.  As the borough president of the Bronx, Donaldo must decide whether to endorse a development project, backed by the mayor of New York, that would see a vacant building transformed into a mall. Though Donaldo doesn’t have any clear alternatives for the vacant building, he is keenly aware that a mall would provide few benefits for the people of the Bronx while lining the pocketbooks of wealthy bankers and business owners. At the same time, his mother and her friend are in financial trouble because they have lent money to a storefront church which cannot pay them back. While his mother’s friend asks him to intercede with the bank, Donaldo also speaks with the pastor of the church, which has yet to hold a service. In both circumstances, which become intertwined, Donaldo feels caught between doing what is financially sound and what he has learned is right from his upbringing in a storefront church.

Donaldo is not the only one who feels torn. The cast of characters find themselves on a continuum between two extremes.  On one end is smooth talking banker Tom Raidenberg (played by Jordan Lange). He is calculating and manipulative in his pursuit of business interests and shows a visible distain for emotional outbursts. On the other end is Jessie Cortez (played by Tonya Pinkins) whose frequent emotional outbursts and blind faith provide comic relief. Both characters narrowly avoid becoming caricatures and act as signposts against which others characters can position themselves. They also seem to support gender stereotypes, especially given that Tonya is the only female character in the play.

One of the characters caught between these two extremes is Rev. Chester Kimmich (played by Ron Cephas Jones), a Pentecostal minister from New Orleans and the pastor of the storefront church that can’t repay money to the women of the play. Chester isn’t what you might expect from a Pentecostal preacher.  Neither Chester, nor his church demonstrates the ecstatic worship, excitable preaching, and speaking in tongues often linked to Pentecostals. None of “the fire and excitement” that James Baldwin writes about in both his fiction and memoirs (Fire Next Time 33; also see Go Tell It on the Mountain; Amen Corner; etc.). Instead, the first time we see Chester, he is quietly sitting in the dark, empty church. He has been doing this for months, prompting one character to call him “the quietest Pentecostal I ever met.” When Donaldo visits him in the church, Chester resists speaking, and does so only when he has no other choice. In this exchange, Chester’s voice, is quiet and intense, and he even seems irritated at some points. Eventually, he reveals that he is stuck.  He describes this feeling as a hole, opening up before him on the path God has called him to follow. In response, Chester has halted his efforts to open a church and waits for God to reveal what he should do next.

Ultimately, this is the lesson that Donaldo learns, and a simplistic version of the play’s overall message: stop and wait. While this isn’t necessarily an unusual message for a Pentecostal pastor to deliver, it might seem more appropriate coming from a Quaker. In some Quaker services, participants sit in a circle, waiting for the Spirit to move someone to speak. Theoretically, if the Spirit moved no one, church members would continue to sit and wait, though this rarely happens. Pentecostals, meanwhile, tend to be known for the frequent movement of the Spirit which manifests itself physically in a variety of forms. It’s not that Pentecostals don’t wait for the Spirit to move, it’s that they are not often portrayed as waiting long or quietly.

So why is Chester a Pentecostal instead of a Quaker? Or, perhaps a better question is why is it significant that Chester is a Pentecostal? There are a number of ways to answer that question. One is that it taps into the social position of Pentecostal and Holiness storefront churches historically in New York and its boroughs. Scholars like Clarence Taylor, John Giggie, Cheryl Sanders, and others have argued that Pentecostal and Holiness storefront churches became havens for lower class ethnic minorities, particularly African-Americans after the Great Migration. While black Baptist and Methodist churches tended to appeal to middle-class African Americans who were keen to set aside “slave religion” in order to present themselves as more respectable, Holiness and Pentecostal churches embraced the more ecstatic components of African-American Christianity. They also provided a sense of spiritual empowerment and opportunities to minister that participants would not find elsewhere, certainly not in a racist American society. Although African-American Pentecostals and Holiness believers were generally hesitant to proactively fight for their rights, preferring instead to leave it in God’s hands, they did minister to segments of the population that more progressive African-American churches tended to shun. Resisting the progress of capitalism in order to aid those left behind fits this Pentecostal-Holiness tradition of ministry.

But there is also dramatic significance to Chester’s Pentecostalism. Chester is not an authoritative spiritual figure, condescendingly dispensing spiritual wisdom to other characters. Instead, he is learning the very lesson he is teaching. At one point he says “I know how I used to do it [lead a church], but I don’t know how to do it now.” Chester is used to have frequent prompts from the Holy Spirit to help guide him. These prompts, often accompanied by physical manifestations in the Pentecostal-Holiness tradition, not only provide guidance but also what Charles Price Jones, an early Black Holiness minister, calls “spiritual assurance, heart peace, rest of soul, the joy of salvation in the understanding of a new heart, a new mind, a new spirit, constantly renewed and comforted by the Holy Ghost” (qtd in Spencer 113).  Without this assurance, Chester admits that, while he still believes in God, he no longer feels God. Instead, he feels dead inside. His waiting is a tormented struggle. As a result, Chester is not an authoritative voice in relation to the other characters; he appears to be struggling with them as an equal.

This becomes apparent in the climax of a play, the first service of Chester’s storefront church. Although it begins with a rather subdued hymn (“I Shall Not Be Moved,” appropriate given its content and its use as a protest song), the service does not follow a recognizable format of hymns and choruses, followed by a sermon and altar call.  Instead, the service becomes a dialogue between the characters. This dialogue is initially framed as testimonies, not uncommon in Pentecostal-Holiness churches, but it eventually loses even this structure. The characters struggle and grope toward a way to understand their lives. One of the bankers, Reed Van Druyten (played by Zach Grenier), has an emotional break down and finds acceptance with the other characters, which is framed as his salvation. Donaldo and Chester, meanwhile, play off each other to construct the ultimate message of the play and its practical application in both of their lives. It is during this exchange that Chester’s voice begins to take on the familiar, authoritative cadence of a Pentecostal minister, a cadence that Donaldo mimics, at first in jest, then in sincerity. This change is punctuated by Chester repeating the phrase “I feel affected,” signaling not only that his sense of the Holy Spirit’s promptings have returned, but also that those promptings have come through the emotional stories of the other characters. The service ends with a much more upbeat rendition of “I Shall Not Be Moved.”

What is absent from all of this, even in Reed’s salvation, is any of the Evangelical theology common in Pentecostal-Holiness churches. In its place, there is a Pentecostal spiritual sensibility mixed with a socio-political project, leading to a pluralistic congregation. Ethan Goldberg (played by Bob Dishy) highlights this vague spiritual pluralism when he proclaims to Chester “either I’ve joined your church or you’ve become a secular Jew.” It links the play to the postsecular, particularly as both John McClure and Amy Hungerford have theorized it. McClure argues that postsecular fiction dramatizes the turn back to religious, but not to a “well-ordered systems of religious belief” (4). Instead, he draws on Jacques Derridas, Richard Rorty, and Gianni Vattimo to construct what he calls “weak religion,” religion which affirms the spiritual/supernatural, but rather than introduce a dogmatic theology, explores possibilities of what the spiritual/supernatural might be like without fully committing to any of those possibilities (13). Protagonists in postsecular fiction incorporate “dramatically ‘weakened’ religiosity with secular, progressive values and projects” (3). For McClure, the weak religion presented in postsecular fiction leads to a more pluralistic understanding of religion which he refers to as “spiritual multiculturalism” (19). In an effort to historicize the postsecular impulse in American fiction, and American culture at large, Hungerford argues that the origins of postsecularism extend all the way back to American transcendentalists. Their celebration of “belief without content,” where the presence of belief in the spiritual is much more important than the doctrinal specifics of that belief, is an early iteration of postsecularism in the United States (xiii). For Hungerford, this lack of content leads to a greater emphasis on the form of belief, especially the form of the language of belief.

Shanley’s Storefront Church clearly shares some of these characteristics.  Its spirituality emphasizes the importance of belief while resisting clear definitions of doctrinal contours of that belief, allowing for a diverse congregation. It also pairs this vague spirituality with a sociopolitical message regarding the progress of capitalism and those it leaves behind. At the same time, the vagueness is balanced by specificity.  Though the spirituality is, at least on the surface, pluralistic due to its lack of defined doctrine, it is a specifically Pentecostal spiritual sensibility. It draws on not only the historical position of Pentecostalism in the social context of the boroughs of New York, but also on Pentecostalism’s emphasis on affect and spiritual interaction with God (leaving behind the doctrinal specificity of “God”). Furthermore, this spirituality includes belief that is not quite void of content, the way Hungerford describes. Instead, it replaces content about God, the Bible, Heaven, and Hell, with content about socio-political action, or more appropriately, inaction, in the face of capitalist progress. This specificity resists the tendency of McClure, and to a lesser degree Hungerford, to homogenize the postsecular.

Though Shanley may rely too heavily on caricatures derived from stereotypes, he clearly presents a postsecular Pentecostalism, one that draws on a specifically Pentecostal spiritual sensibility and combines it with a historically specific socio-political message.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James.  The Amen Corner.  New York: Dial, 1968.

--. The Fire Next Time.  New York: Vintage, 1991.

--. Go Tell It on the Mountain.  New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.

Giggie, John.  After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915.  New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Hungerford, Amy. Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010.

McClure, John.  Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison.  Athens: U of Georgia P, 2007.

Sanders, Cheryl J.  Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture.  New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Spencer, Jon Michael. Black Hymnody: A Hymnological History of the African-American Church.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1992.

Storefront Church. By John Patrick Shanley. Dir. John Patrick Shanley. Perf. Giancarlo Esposito and Ron Cephas Jones. Linda Gross Theatre, New York. 27 June 2012. Performance.

Taylor, Clarence. The Black Churches of Brooklyn. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

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